“History,” say the Dryth, “is made in victory and erased by defeat.” So it is that our history is a Dryth one, and seems to remain so. We Thraad have purchased our existence with our service to the task of maintaining the Dryth’s narrative of themselves and, therefore, of all of us. I say this in my capacity as historian. Let no Dryth Aigythi come to destroy me – I speak the truth, which is protected by the Law. This I swear.
To business, then.
Once there was no Law. There was no Union. This time, by the reckoning of my people, was between six and six-point-five centuries ago (sidereal). Few records of that time remain, though whether this is by accident or the design of some faction or other is beyond my purview to speculate. Suffice to say that this cluster of star systems now known as the Union was in no way unified. We were many peoples – some say over a dozen developed races – just branching into the stars. Making contact with one another, fighting small wars and forging small alliances. We were each a species apart, each proud in our ways.
It is hard to say where the Unification began. It is evident that the great Dryth Houses were mightiest, conquering as they could, absorbing where they could not. The texts of the ancient Dryth epics attests to their courage, their bravado, their pride. There was Harita Khesimett and his Companions; Doorga Wyrm-slayer, the first Solon; Kashima Yan, Great Queen of Stars. Their technology was great, even then. They were the first to develop slipdrive, the first to master quasi-organics, the first to deploy nano-weapons. It is a wonder that they did not simply destroy us all. It seems as though few were able to fight them; those that were perished.
Wars of conquest among the stars were unrestricted things then. The creatures we now call Marshalls were not bound to serve – they roamed freely, preyed on what they wished (even one another), and they were objects of chaos, not order. Invasion via slow-ship was a long process. Such wars happened across generations and took centuries to prosecute. That they happened at all is an indication of our world before the civilizing influence of the Law and its Union; we were ravenous peoples. We devoured our worlds, boiled over the boundaries set by nature. We had to spread or perish. By all accounts, many species did perish, their names and civilizations lost beneath a blaze of thermonuclear fire or a plague of ravenous nanites.
At the center of this were the Dryth Houses - as greedy as the rest, but tempered in fires other civilizations had not borne. It was there that the Unification began – among the Great Houses, whose wars dwarfed those of the ‘lesser’ races. The first Judge, Harongi Hatto, began to teach the virtues of peace and cooperation to a small group of followers on the Crimson Plateau on Odryss, the Dryth homeworld. The Archon of House Fleer, Ghestar, had him executed for cowardice, but others took his place. As is written in the Preamble, Ghestar’s own daughter, then a young Solon named Jaegai, became an adherent of the Law and cast down her father in single combat. House Fleer was no more; all of Fleer’s Housed converted to the Law and fashioned themselves into what we now call the Temphri. Those who refused were forced to commit suicide, via Dryth custom.
The Temphri, led by Jaegai, called for unity among the Dryth, but found no takers. The other Houses saw no advantage in their conversion. Fleer’s ancient holdings were seized, their vassals subsumed, their fleets laid to ruin. Jaegai was forced to find allies outside of her own species. So it was that she set out for sixteen years, travelling from world to world, from people to people, speaking the virtues of the Law. She made many enemies, but more friends. She called them to her cause, and they joined together. Even many of the great star-beasts we know as Marshalls heeded her call. At last, massing at Carthade, the Union was struck, and the time to force the remainder to submit or join was entered.
The Unification Wars were terrible, but incredibly brief by most standards. Battles raged for four years (or so the tales say) on almost every world in what is now the Union (and more besides, no doubt). Billions perished, but from it emerged a new order. The Law was transcendent – each member species was required to adhere, and it was adapted to fit with their gods and their ancestors. Those who would not sign were cast out, their worlds claimed in the name of the Law and given over to the Union’s use. Exhausted by centuries of rapacious slaughter and warfare, the Law set out the Cycles – sixteen sidereal years of enforced peace, lest the wrath of the Marshalls be incurred, four sidereal years of circumscribed war. So it has subsisted, for these 23 cycles and 11 years. So it seems likely to remain.
There is justice here in the Union – that I know – but it is not justice for everyone. Each wartime cycle sees the Dryth Houses conquer more, dominate more widely. There is no resisting them for long. The Marshalls, now massive and unstoppable, treat the assembled races as nothing more than a tantalizing buffet, prepared for their enjoyment at the slightest slip in protocol. And, of course, there are those lesser races, absorbed into the Union in ages past against their will, never fully integrated, who live beneath us as slaves or worse.
But, ah, I grow irritable. It is late and I am old, my great foot aches and my tentacles waver in the glow of the lamp. Perhaps, as the ancient Thraad thinker Kophis theorized, there is a way to fashion a more perfect world. I cannot say that I know how. I count the blessings the Union has given my people, and I choose to be deaf to the cries of those it has stolen from. What more can I do? Who would rip down the world in blood and fire, only to build anew that which cannot be achieved? Not I, not I.
That is a game for the youth, and I am no longer young.
Author’s Note: This is some primer text for a science fiction setting I am currently developing. I hope you enjoyed it.
Never mind looking around for me; I’m currently invisible. No, no, I’m not doing it to impress you or frighten you or any of that nonsense – it’s part of an experiment. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Just sit down, will you? Not there, thank you very much – that’s where I’m sitting – try over there. On the books.
To begin with, let me make one thing abundantly clear: You aren’t special. Well…perhaps that’s not entirely true; allow me to rephrase. There is nothing genetically or mystically unique to your person that indicates that you can become a mage. It is a common misconception among the common folk that magi (or wizards or sorcerers or warlocks or what-have-you) are somehow ‘born’ with a special gift that sets them apart. That, at least, is the clap-trap peddled in the Twin Kingdoms and in Kalsaar. We live in the West, we are civilized and intelligent beings, and we ought not believe a word of that nonsense.
Please look over here where I’m sitting. I despise speaking to someone who is looking elsewhere. No, not there - a little higher. Yes, quite right. Thank you.
Anyway, as I was saying, what you refer to as ‘magic’ (but what we refer to as the High Arts) is accessible to anyone with a studious disposition, a strong work ethic, and other things that make people good students. It is, at its heart, an academic discipline (well, barring those brutes who focus on channeling the Fey, but that’s a topic for a different time). The point is that anyone with a good head on their shoulders and a good teacher can learn sorcery. This, historically, has been a troubling fact to many rulers, as the prospect that any number of ornery peasants might learn how to conjure demonfire or toss lode-bolts around was enough to give them permanent indigestion. Indeed, that is where the whole ‘wizards are born, not made’ myth originated, no doubt. Better to convince the populace that they have no hope than allow them the knowledge that they might re-make the world as they see fit if only they hit the books hard enough.
Am I still invisible? Good. Be certain to let me know if I start to appear. It might be a bit grisly, mind you – the digestive tract is usually the first thing to show up. If you must, there’s a basin beside you. Make certain not to vomit on any of the books, or I’ll turn you into a frog.
Just kidding. That’s enormously difficult to do and it wouldn’t be worth the effort. I’d probably just Shroud you so you looked like a frog to everyone else. Just as frustrating for you, but much less likely to freeze my lungs solid as I channel that much of the Dweomer.
Now, where was I? Ah, yes, wizards. Well, the first thing you ought to know is that I can’t, technically, train you to be a mage. It’s something of a semantic distinction, unfortunately. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but such is the world we live in. There are three ‘titles’ affixed to practitioners of the High Arts. The first, most common, and lowest is ‘wizard’. A wizard is anyone who can utilize some aspect of the High Arts, no matter how meager. It’s a catchall term. Call an alchemist a ‘wizard’ and he’ll be pretty flattered, since he probably only knows how to use the Low Arts. Call a staff-bearing mage a ‘wizard’, and he’ll react as if you spat in her soup. Fair warning.
The next up the chain is a ‘sorcerer’. A sorcerer is any wizard with some degree of formal training; a conjurer who can only conjure up water is a wizard, a conjurer who’s studied the Art of Ilticaci, a Kalsaari sorcerous art dedicated to desert survival, itself a derivative of the arts practiced by the Salasi Sandmagi of the Century Desert, can rightfully be called a sorcerer. It is a serious term for serious practitioners, not dabblers, and it is that which I could promise to teach you to become, should you pass my tests.
Finally, of course, is the title of ‘mage’, bestowed only upon those sorcerers trained in the ancient halls of the Arcanostrum of Saldor and who have achieved their second mark and, thus, earned their staff. I did this myself, and I have the staff to prove it. It is a unique and special distinction and, should you show talent, I might suggest you tender your application to the Arcanostrum yourself, that, however, is for another time.
In any event, what is most important to remember is this: the High Arts, and the profession of sorcerer, is the most important profession in the world. One man with vision can reshape society, history, and even the land itself using these arts, and this is not to be taken lightly. No, we are the safeguards of the future and it is our purpose, more than any priest, to shepherd humanity to a brighter tomorrow. To become a sorcerer, you must cast off your personal concerns, your lusts for power, your ambitions for wealth, your…AGH! Kroth dammit!
The cat jumped on me again! Stupid animal! Did you let it back in the room? Hann’s Boots, boy! I’ve totally lost my concentration! You can see me, can’t you? You can! I can tell by the way you’re making eye-contact. Dammit all to bloody hell! I was on my way to a record, too. I spent the past three weeks without being able to see my own hands. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get dressed? Kroth, Kroth, and bloody goddamned Kroth. I knew I should have sent the cat to stay with my brother. Dammit.
A real brief post today:
My friend, Gina Damico, has her debut novel dropping today in bookstores all over the US. It’s called Croak, and it’s a YA Fantasy about teenage grim reapers…and it’s funny. It sounds marvellous, and I’ll be buying my copy today. You should too, if you happen to like fantasy, humor, and snarky teenage protagonists.
You can learn more here, at Gina’s website.
Also: Congratulations Gina, and good luck!
Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”
If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ’I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in. Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful. You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.
This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).
Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer. When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.
The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.
Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.